Call it instinct, a mother’s love, or desperation, but when Ana Lisbeth Valerio learned that 6-month-old Alexa needed a surgery that her regional hospital could not provide, she went to extraordinary lengths to find help. As the stay-at-home mother of three and farmer’s wife quickly learned, the problem was much greater than finding another hospital for the lifesaving procedure. Not only was the surgery unavailable in their hometown of Constanza, or the surrounding La Vega province, it was unavailable in her entire Dominican Republic homeland.
“Alexa contracted pneumonia, and that’s when doctors detected her cardiac condition. They said she needed an operation, that it was a very serious condition. That’s when I started looking for help,” Lisbeth says. After months of searching, pleading and advertising on radio and in the newspaper, Lisbeth discovered that it takes not only a mother’s relentless mission, but an elaborate international partnership and, unfortunately, time —of which Alexa had little to spare. The repair for Alexa’s congenital heart defect was time-sensitive. Each day that went by brought her closer to a time when the surgery might not be feasible.
At SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, Andrew Fiore, MD, and Charles Huddleston, MD, professors of cardiothoracic surgery at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, perform the complex, life-saving surgery Alexa needed an average of once per month. However, this case had unique importance. “As physicians, we need to be committed to the care of all patients, not just those with the wherewithal financially and socially to have their health improved if they have a congenital heart defect,” Dr. Fiore says. “Dr. Huddleston and I feel that missionary work is an important part of our practice.”
World Pediatric Project Executive Director Kathy Corbett witnesses and addresses health care disparity cases like Alexa’s every day. With a vision that “Geography should not be the reason a child lives or dies,” Corbett founded a predecessor organization that became part of World Pediatric Project in 2011. The mission is two-fold: to meet the critical care needs of children whose needs cannot be met in their own countries by bringing them to partner hospitals for surgical care, and to establish long-term, sustainable solutions for health care needs by providing training, diagnostic tools and improving the existing hospital infrastructure to build up health care capacity and lessen the dependence on countries like the U.S.
Repairing Alexa’s atrioventricular septal defect required a complex operation, Dr. Fiore explains. “She was born with one large hole between the two upper and lower chambers. She had abnormalities in both valves — the mitral and tricuspid valve — so we had to repair the valves and close two holes,” he says. During the three- to four-hour surgery, Alexa was on the heart-lung machine for nearly two hours. Given her age and the risk factors, “We were very pleased she did so well,” Dr. Fiore says. “The holes are closed, and the valves are repaired well. The physicians, surgeons and nurses at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon have given Alexa an opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest.”